Divided Thailand readies for advance voting Sunday


BANGKOK (AP) — Anti-government demonstrators in Thailand's capital surrounded polling stations and chained their doors shut Sunday as the country readied for a tense day of advance voting ahead of general elections that are supposed to take place next week.

The outcome of Sunday's ballot is seen as a harbinger for the main vote, which the Election Commission and protesters demanding Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's ouster want postponed.

The ruling party says it wants the ballot to go ahead but top officials suggested over the weekend that the poll could be delayed if protests end and the main opposition party takes part. Yingluck is expected to meet the Election Commissioner to discuss that possibility on Tuesday.

Some 49 million of the country's 64 million people are eligible to cast ballots, and 2.16 million of them applied for advance voting.

Although disruptions are likely in at 50 electoral venues in Bangkok and the opposition stronghold in southern Thailand, voting is likely to go ahead unhindered in the majority of the country. Yingluck's Pheu Thai party won the last vote in a 2011 landslide. The opposition Democrats are boycotting the poll.

Even if the Feb. 2 vote goes ahead, analysts expect that not all legislative seats would be filled. That would deny Parliament a quorum and keeping it from convening, which would prevent a new government from being formed and keep the nation in crisis.

The protesters say Yingluck's government is carrying on the practices of Thaksin Shinawatra, her billionaire brother who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, by using the family fortune and state funds to influence voters and cement its power.

Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006 after street protests accusing him of corruption and abuse of power. The coup triggered a sometimes-violent and still active struggle for power between Thaksin's supporters and opponents. He fled into exile in 2008 to avoid a two-year prison sentence for a conflict of interest.

Yingluck has come under extreme pressure from the protesters who have occupied key intersections in Bangkok and tried to shut down government offices and prevent civil servants from working. They have vowed to disrupt the elections, want Yingluck to resign and an appointed interim government to implement anti-corruption reforms before a new vote can take place.

On Friday, the Constitutional Court ruled that the government, in agreement with the Election Commission, could postpone the polls. But Yingluck's Pheu Thai party questioned the legal basis for the ruling.

One official, Thanin Boonsuwan, suggested that the court's ruling did not meet conditions set down by law or precedent. He said that the court decision was merely an opinion and did not mandate a postponement.

Postponing the election could provide a solution to the current crisis, said Bangkok-based political analyst Chris Baker. But he said that unless the Democrat Party — which is closely allied with the protest movement — takes part in an election at some point, "it's still useless."

The government this week imposed a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas after a spate of protest-related violence. The measure allows suspension of many civil liberties. The protesters say they will ignore any measures imposed by the decree, which is valid for 60 days.

Commissioner Theerawat Theerarojwit said the election body believes the February vote should be postponed for safety reasons and so the contending sides can first talk with each other.